Photo by Matt Adams, UK Athletics
John Calipari has repeatedly called this season a “learning experience” that left him humbled and hungry for next season (and NYC pastries, if you follow his Twitter feed). After a few days of reflection, and countless conversations with friends who asked “what happened?!” to Kentucky this season, here are five lessons I think we can draw from a disappointing year:
1. An empty bench is an enabler
This team’s primary problem? Not enough players. The cabinet was cleaned after last year’s Championship run, leading Calipari to lean heavily on his incoming freshmen and Ryan Harrow. When Cal wasn’t getting the performance, and more importantly, the attitude, he wanted to from those players, he couldn’t do what he would normally do: put them on the bench and make them fight for playing time. After Nerlens Noel went down, the problem got even worse. Towards the end of the season, Calipari addressed that situation numerous times with the media, speaking wistfully of the future when he would have his best friend, the bench, back. There is no better teaching tool for a coach with a young squad than the bench. For those of you wondering why he didn’t just play Tod Lanter, Brian Long, or Sam Malone when things got as bad as they did, Cal has a simple answer: “I like winning too much.” Thankfully, with a roster chock full of future NBA players, this will no longer an issue.
2. Not all freshmen are created equal
I wasn’t sure there would ever be a time when I would miss Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist more than I did when they left last year, but it may have happened during that 30-point loss at Tennessee. Over the past three years, we have been spoiled by Anthony Davis, MKG, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Brandon Knight, all freshmen whose talent was matched by their will to win. Davis and MKG in particular were mature beyond their years, something I’m not sure we ever fully realized until this year’s group crumbled under expectations. The only player that was ready to handle the UK lifestyle was Nerlens Noel, and when he went down, this team’s flaws became fatal. Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein are all extremely talented, but none of them are ready to make the jump to the NBA, something any of them will readily admit. As Cal said, there’s nothing wrong with them being two, three, or even four-year players. Whether or not this year’s weak draft will lead to them making the jump remains unseen.
3. There are some things even dodgeball can’t fix
Jimmy Dykes turned off his Dr. Seuss filter last Tuesday while calling the UK/Robert Morris game and unleashed some hard truths about this Kentucky team. One thing he said stood out to me: Dykes said he knew this team had some major problems when they had to play a game of dodgeball to try to save the season. Looking back, he’s right. When poor John Robic has to dress up in a ridiculous outfit and kick your butt in dodgeball for you to “recapture the fun” in sport, things are bad. Cal has said several times that there are players on this squad that simply put, don’t love playing basketball. They don’t have that built-in passion for the sport that makes them come to the gym early and stay late, ala Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Whether or not that’s something you can cultivate over an off season full of vengeful thoughts…well, we’ll see.
4. You are only as strong as your weakest link
This team lived and died by the play of Ryan Harrow and Alex Poythress. When Harrow and Poythress played well, the Cats were at their best. When one or both of them were off their game, they floundered. Harrow’s inability to lead the team and handle the pressure left him crying in a locker room in Nashville. Poythress admitted that at times, he didn’t give all of his effort, and by the time he was ready to rectify those mistakes, it was too late. Both have said they want to be back next season. If they return, they will have to fight for playing time and prove they’re ready for the spotlight, or each lapse and misstep will result in them heading back to the pine.
5. Hell hath no fury like a Kentucky team scorned
It was hard not to be cocky after last season. Three years of success in the Calipari system and a National Championship had Kentucky’s swagger so high that ESPN turned it into a TV show. Unfortunately, that TV show may have led to our demise. Looking back, ESPN’s All-Access highlighted some serious flaws in this group that we can only now fully realize. Even more, it heaped even more hype onto their shoulders, which by season’s end, crumbled like a Jenga tower. The only good thing about Kentucky’s embarrassing end to the season? The humiliation seems to have lit a fire in several of the players for revenge. Most notably Willie Cauley-Stein, who has said he’s ready to come back and get another ring several times, even tweeting a daily countdown to Big Blue Madness. Now, Cauley-Stein has also said that he has to speak with his family before making a decision and that if their financial situation becomes a factor, he will go. But, that passion and next year’s super class assembling in the wings can’t help but give you goosebumps.
208 more days ’til Big Blue Madness. (Thanks, Willie)